Took me long enough to write this, but the good news is that this fragment will hopefully clear up a lot of bottlenecked questions that you all might have had. And if you’re a newbie who happened to stumble across this, grab the preceeding fragments here. Happy reading!
Circa 1298 – One year before the present events
–Palace of the Imperial Emperor of Japan, Shinano province–
The samurai’s gold lined armor gleamed in the fading light, as he bowed before a brooding figure, ‘Saizo-sama. You wanted to see me?’
A gentle breeze buffeted Saizo Iwata’s kamishimo around his tall frame. He leaned against a circular window, silhouetted against a backdrop of rolling greens and a range of low hills in the distance. The bustle of the town below seemed far off.
‘Ryutaro, 3 years ago you renounced your loyalty to the clan, but today, I need you at my side.’
Ryutaro bowed, ‘Pray do not dishonor me, masuta. To serve and protect His Imperial Majesty, disavowing one’s clan is ancient law. I dare not anger the kami, yet I still carry the teachings of our clan. You talk about something grave, what is it?’
Saizo smiled. He knew Ryutaro would come through. As head of the samurai clan Shojiro, Saizo Iwata served as advisor to the tenno heika, His Majesty, Ito Shibata. Only the most skilled samurai were picked to protect the emperor himself. Chosen personally by Saizo, three were from the clan he himself led, Shojiro; three from clan Haseda, and three from clan Niyo. Nine warriors, the likes of which had never been seen by the land.
Saizo turned towards Ryutaro, ‘A month ago, we got word from an outpost that a yamabushi had turned up, claiming he had information that The Emperor would kill for. We dismissed it for obvious reasons. Most of those crazy monks are incredibly insane. A life devoted to wandering aimlessly will do that to you. But he persisted, and His Revered Majesty had him called in, if only for some entertainment…’Saizo grew quiet.
‘What did he reveal?’, Ryutaro asked.
‘Tell me, Ryutaro, do you believe in the Kami?’
Features set in stone, Ryutaro dipped his head sharply, ‘Of course I do, masuta. Their light created this world of ours, blessed be, O Izanagi.’
Saizo shook his head, ‘No, I mean as in, they were here, stood where you stand now, real flesh and bone.’
‘I do not understand Saizo-sama. Pray do not talk in riddles.’
‘He spoke of the wilful Susanoo, the kami, god of the sea and storms.’ Saizo ran his fingers through his dark beard, ’Susanoo was born of Izanagi, the creator of all known things. He had a sister, Amaterasu, and the two rarely saw eye to eye. They fought and quarreled and brewed cataclysms over quaint matters, but one day Susanoo went too far. In a wilful rage, he wrought wanton destruction and killed Amaterasu’s most beloved hand-maiden.
Izanagi saw this and he knew things had gone too far. He banished his son to the mortal realm of Earth, where Susanoo, to save a peasant family, slew the eight heads of the mighty dragon, Yamata no Orochi, and from its forked tail, drew the indomitable sword, Kusanagi no tsurugi. The blade was said to be forged of a dying star, with a sentient soul of its own. The hilt was one unbroken gem and shined brighter than day. Its power was unthinkable, and even Susanoo was dumbstruck. Thereafter, he ascended to heaven and presented the sword to Amaterasu as a gift of forgetfulness and new beginnings. Amaterasu accepted it graciously and gave it to her earthly descendant, Ninigi. But the line of Ninigi was broken, and Kusanagi was lost to the ages, found only in tales.’
Ryutaro nodded, ‘I am aware of the legends, masuta.’
‘The yamabushi said he had found the sword.’
Although expressionless, Ryutaro’s surprise was evident in his eyes.
Saizo turned around, sighing, ‘Although he himself knows little, he has given us the location of another monk who knows where the sword is. It appears Daimyo Izagawa has him under protection. His majesty wanted me to look into it, but Izagawa is a vassal of Shogun Ginjiro, and Ginjiro Goto is not one to shy away from such an opportunity. Naturally, he volunteered, and His Highness handed him the task, trusting even the ones who least deserve it, like always. If this story turns out to be true, and the Kusanagi actually exists, Ginjiro is the last person I would want to be holding it. No one will be safe, not even the emperor.’
Saizo placed a hand on Ryutaro’s shoulder, ‘Take whomever you want with you, but I would advise travelling light, with only a few of your best men. And remember, time is of the essence.’ Ryutaro bowed wordlessly and swept out of the corridor.
Saizo watched him leave. He won’t let his Emperor down come what may. And Heaven help anyone who stood in the way of the golden death.
–The Yoru Stronghold, Inaba province–
‘Any word from Junkei?’
‘She rode in earlier today. Daimyo Izagawa denied any knowledge of a yamabushi within his province.’
The room was deathly silent, like always. A low wooden table sat in front of a plain, brown cloth. On it, kneeled an aging man with hard features, straight-backed and radiating intimidation. Hanbei Yoru glanced up from the scroll he had been perusing, and locked eyes with the young man before him, ‘She was to hold her post until further orders.’
‘Yes, sensei, but I thought it prudent to pull her back before Izagawa got up his nerve to take her into custody. It would not have fared well for our reputation.’
‘And I am certain Hachiman-sama would have personally welcomed those struck down by her blades into heaven. Do not go against my wishes again.’ Fists clenched, the young man bowed sharply, ’Yes, father.’
‘Prepare for tomorrow, you know your part, nothing will be easy. Now leave me.’
The young man bowed again, sweeping out of the room. Thoughts churning, he crossed a corridor, one of many winding through the stronghold set deep within the mountains of Inaba province. This was the heart of the Clan of Yoru, the centre of the web that had been spun over hundreds of years. Yoru shinobi were some of the finest assassins in the land, feared by all and sundry, yet the soil in which they tread was barren and wasteful. As such, they were dependent on grain supplies from nearby provinces. Long ago, the Daimyo of these lands allowed them to do so, but asked for their allegiance in return. Having his competition eliminated by poison and stealth, rise to power, and soon, the title of Shogun was quick to follow. Allegiances are not something taken lightly, and vows once sworn, could not be unspoken. Hence it came to pass that Hanbei Yoru and his clan served Shogun Ginjiro Goto, the latest descendant of an ambitious daimyo who lived long ago.
‘Kiyoshi!’ an excited shout startled the young man from his reverie. He looked back. Of course. A lithe figure stepped out of the shadows, an infectious smile playing on her lips.
‘Haia-san’, Kiyoshi bowed, his eyes sparkling, ‘Were you eavesdropping on us?’
‘Like I would want to, otouto’ Haia scoffed, waving away the accusation, ‘Eiji-san leads the attack tomorrow, and he wants me leading the foxes, along with you.’
Kiyoshi frowned, ‘You were supposed to lead the kunoichis straight inside to grab the priest’
Haia shrugged, ‘He’s father’s right-hand man, his word is as close to law as it gets. You and me, we’re just humble footsoldiers’, grinning slyly, she took Kiyoshi’s hand, ‘come little brother, I miss the cherries from our tree. Let’s see if you can throw those fancy silver kunai better than you carry them.’
Kiyoshi laughed, following his sister obediently. Tomorrow may be a day of blood and ruin, but today, they were simply two siblings who hadn’t seen each other for a long, long time.